Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Not The Final Battle - X-Men: Apocalypse, Reviewed

For the third time in three months, we have a superhero movie that pits those who either had been or will later be allies against each other: Batman v. Superman, Civil War, and now, X-Men: Apocalypse, just in time for a G&G outing to boot!

In the opinion of many fans, BvS lacked the characterization and rationality to be an effective story over all its spectacle, while Civil War succeeded in giving us a tale of internal conflict that also contained tremendous action set pieces which looked and sounded like they were ripped from the pages of the comics that inspired them. On which side does this third of the re-booted X-Men movies fall?

In the middle, kind of, which is all right with me.

The X-Men movies have had two major strengths as a franchise. First, their allegorical elements about exclusion and persecution ring true for anyone who has felt like an outsider, whether they are a black teenager, a first generation Muslim immigrant, or someone questioning their sexuality. The whole premise of the X-Men is an insightful mentor, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) bringing together a group of 'gifted youngsters' to defend the world, human and mutant alike, from the depredations of evil mutants, in the hopes of bringing these two species together.

Playing the Malcolm X to Xavier's MLK is Magneto, portrayed here for the third time by Michael Fassbender, (a most worthy successor to Ian McKellen), who wants to subjugate mankind under the so-called homo superior, after seeing his parents taken away into Auschwitz. In First Class and Days of Future Past, Fassbender walks a tightrope between folk hero and terrorist, but in Apocalypse, he drifts from a wary fugitive to co-opted catspaw of the real villain, the eponymous Apocalypse, with surprisingly little impact.

In the comics, the immortal En Sabah Nur is trying to build a better world for mutants by pitting them against each other, feeling that this conflict destroys the weak and permits only the strongest to survive. As a Nietzschean-style cream-rising exercise in social engineering, I suppose it has its merits, but in the movie, even an excellent actor like Oscar Isaac is stymied at giving any sort of nuanced portrayal of Apocalypse.

Make no mistake, Isaac gives as much gravitas as he can to Apocalypse, but despite the incredible array of powers he has absorbed from other mutants over the centuries (super strength, teleportation, mind control, power enhancement, fusing people into walls, etc., etc.), he comes off as a crowing bogeyman, and about as relatable as the Rhino from the old Spider-Man cartoons. I haven't read too many Apocalypse stories, and his modus operandi of "FIGHT!" doesn't have as much appeal to me as the more political and allegorical X-Men tales, but he has his fans, and I don't know how they will feel about this largely clich├ęd interpretation.

In fact, once he co-opts four classic X-Men into being his 'Four Horsemen' (Magneto, Angel, Psylocke, and Storm), the action becomes so mutant centric and world shattering that there isn't room for the broader exclusionary tale that has been the hallmark of the best X-Movies, and that's a shame.

But all is not lost.

The second great strength these movies have are excellent casting and characterizations, and while the bad guys may come up short, the good guys more than make up for it, especially for long time fans like myself.

Watching the demonic-looking Nightcrawler try to resist being forced to fight the winged mutant Angel in an electrified cage match is a great treat, and watching a teenaged Cyclops discover his optic blast powers to devastating effect mixes thrills with empathy adroitly. Watching him meet Jean Grey (Game of Thrones Sophie Turner, who, as an actress, is mostly very pretty), likely to become the extra-powerful Phoenix, is bittersweet as well. (Really, Cyclops is the character I feel got the shortest shrift in the first X-Men trilogy, and fervently hope he is given the opportunity to be the brilliant but troubled team leader he is in the comics.)

Since Days of Future Past, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique has become an inspirational figure for many mutants, a far cry from her detached villainy in the comics, and something her movie iteration wants little to do with, despite her tireless efforts to rescue exploited mutants like Nightcrawler. Nicholas Hoult does a wonderful job as both the studious Hank McCoy and his feral alter ego Beast again, but isn't given much to work with here, because the next fight is always right around the corner.

When the powers are used, they are used imaginatively and effectively, although  actually (pushes eyeglasses up onto bridge of nose), Cyclops' optic blasts do not generate heat the way they are depicted here; they are strictly concussive in nature.

(Ahem) Sorry, where was I? Right, the powers: Nightcrawler's teleportation is shown as being as dangerous and unpredictable in close quarters here as they were at the beginning of X2, but are described in a manner that suggests limitations ("As far as I can see, or any place I have been to before."). Storm's flight is less like Superman and more like a wind-rider (as is appropriate!), and her lightning bolts are just as devastating as they should be. And being set in the 80s, her mohawk look here is completely on-point and well pulled off to boot.

Once again though, Quicksilver steals the show.

Evan Peters has come such a long way from Kick-Ass's friend Todd, and he gets a couple of brilliant setpieces in which to display his speedster abilities. The first does so in a non-fight (a pleasant change of pace!) that mixes humour and heroism delightfully well, while the second, well, let's just say even the strongest villain should probably refrain from picking a fight with someone that fast, and leave it at that. The quips fly just as quickly, but since the last film though, he has figured out who his father is, which adds just a hint of emotional complexity in a movie sorely needing some.

The word 'apocalypse' comes from the Greek and means 'to uncover or reveal', which is why the Biblical book of Revelations is also called the Apocalypse of St. John. So what is revealed in X-Men: Apocalypse, and who should go see it?

Well, if you don't like superhero movies, this one won't change your mind they way something like Winter Soldier might have, so dragging along an unwilling companion is probably a non-starter. But there is much more to like than to dislike, all in all, and even if `the third movie is always the worst' as Cyclops asserts while the young mutants walk out of a screening of Return of the Jedi, this film is a far cry from the mess that the first X-Men threequel ended up being,  Best of all, despite being a complete story, the stage is now set for a great lineup of newer X-Men in the next film, likely set in the 90s.

If you like well-depicted comic book action in general, or this big slate of legendary mutants in particular, or are even just a fan of 80s nostalgia, X-Men: Apocalypse is a fun way to spend a couple of hours, even if its message of acceptance and bravery is just a smidgen more understated this time around.

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